Milo M. Naeve Reviews
The Furniture of Charleston, 1680-1820
The Furniture of Charleston, 1680-1820
By Bradford L. Rauschenberg and John Bivins, Jr.
Old Salem Inc., The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts,
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 2003
(3 Volumes) ISBN: 0-945578-05-9 $325
Reviewed by Milo M. Naeve, Field-McCormick Curator Emeritus of American Arts of the Art Institute of Chicago. July, 2003
Available at Amazon.com/maxusabilitys-20?dev-t=mason-wrapper%26camp=2025%26link_code=xm2" rel="external">Amazon.com
The three volumes are part of a quarter-century study of Southern crafts and arts by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). Participants, in addition to Bradford L. Rauschenberg and the late John Bivins, Jr., as MESDA staff, are eighteen researchers for private collections, sixty-eight analysts of such documents as newspapers, photographers (notably Wesley Stewart and Gavin Ashworth), and the co-founder of MESDA who conceived the study, worked on every phase, and gently guided it: Frank L. Horton. Funding was by MESDA, patrons, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Rauschenberg and Bivins are especially qualified as authors. Each is experienced in research and the history of furniture. Rauschenberg’s specialized knowledge of wood identification is complemented by that of Bivins in craft techniques. The interest of both authors in history has led to particularly informative essays introducing the first two volumes.
Founded in 1670, Charleston became the economic and cultural capital of the Lowcountry (Savannah River to Cape Fear). Ships sailed from the port with indigo, rice and cotton. Prosperity led to a population of about 11,000 by 1775. It bounded to 18,000 by 1800, compared to 60,000 in the largest American city of New York. The Palladian grandeur of Drayton Hall (National Trust for Historic Preservation), which John Drayton built near Charleston from 1738 to 1742, is still a shimmering highlight of the culture; he furnished it luxuriously with contemporary English furniture of superb quality (Charleston Museum: side table, settee, armchair).
Great wealth also made patrons for fine furniture from local shops. Rauschenberg’s and Bivins’ purpose is identifying stylistic features of quality furniture associated with at least the Lowcountry, and, specifically, with Charleston. The 438 furniture entries in the books are securely documented. They often include insightful essays introducing categories for materials, dimensions, condition, marks or inscriptions, and history. The editor, Gary J. Albert, estimated in an interview on July 21, 2003, that the books include about 1400 illustrations; about 300 are in color. Detail in illustrations and text are important because much of the furniture is not publicly available. Each volume includes a bibliography and aids for locating information.
Volume I is dedicated to Colonial Furniture. It ranges from 1680 to 1780. Some readers may debate dates in the 1770s for furniture with veneers, inlays and tapered legs that would be dated at least in the late 1780s in the North. The authors base their conclusions on the relationships of patrons and craftsmen with Great Britain and Europe. The index is excellent.
Neoclassical Furniture in Volume II concludes the interest of MESDA. The period is identified as dating from 1780 to 1820 and following the revolution in British taste led by Robert Adam (1728-1792). The useful index sensibly covers the first and second volumes.
Volume III is subtitled The Cabinetmakers. The book is not an airless room. Pages for the alphabetical entries can be turned for an unique record of the often hard and sometimes successful lives of about 680 joiners, cabinetmakers, carvers, turners, gilders, furniture decorators, frame makers and upholsterers. Appendices are a chronology of artisans and their addresses by streets.
Books, articles and lectures over the last century have given tantalizing glimpses of Charleston furniture. The comprehensive new data and intelligent analysis of it by Rauschenberg and Bivins now offer surprising information and startling conclusions. In the colonial period, for example, the scarcity of chairs may be the result of Charlestonians abandoning competition in price and quality with shops elsewhere specializing in chairs. In Neoclassical furniture, for another example, the authors are refreshingly frank in eschewing some attributions for chairs and sideboards to Northern cities or to Charleston because Northern craftsmen immigrated there and imported Northern woods. The authors clearly trace over the generations a succession of French, English, German and Scottish influences.
Occasional discrepancies from current scholarship — usual in books of such range — do not compromise the significance of the study. They do suggest caution for conclusions outside the authors’ expertise in Charleston furniture. A reference to a cedar desk in a Charleston inventory of 1692 elicits a comment, for example, that a local craftsman made it because the wood was "not commonly used in case furniture in New England or Britain." (p.16) Publications by Gordon Saltar for Boston Massachusetts1, Jeanne Vibert Sloane for Newport, Rhode Island2, Jack L. Lindsey for Pennsylvania3, and Adam Bowett for England4, reveal that cedar was a usual Anglo-American cabinet wood until demand cleared stands of the trees by the 1760s.
Rauschenberg remarks that information is available for other books about furniture in Charleston (p. xxxxiv). They include the vernacular, production from 1820 to 1861, and imports before 1860. I hope that Rauschenberg, Senior Fellow Emeritus at MESDA since January 1, 2003, and Albert, Director of Publications for Old Salem and MESDA, are encouraged to write and to publish them.
1 "New England Timbers" in Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century , ed. Walter Muir Whitehill (Boston, Massachusetts: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1974), p. 252.
2 "John Cahoone and the Newport Furniture Industry: Essays in Memory of Benno M. Forman", Old-Time New England, Vol. 72 (1987), pp 93-94, espec. p 104; Fig. 5, p. 105.
3 Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758 ( Philadelphia, Pennsylvania : Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999), p.112.
4 English Furniture, 1660-1714: From Charles II to Queen Anne (Woodbridge, England: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002), pp. 19, 106, espec. 307.